Skycatcher and the future

At the NBAA show this fall, multimillion dollar business jets and working aircraft were the focus. No surprise. After all, the organization is the National Business Aviation Association. While I’ve attended a few times (and am always stunned by the size of the exhibit hall and the opulence of the displays), I was caught off guard when I heard that some reporters asked Cessna’s President and CEO Scott Ernest about the Skycatcher.

One thing that did not surprise me was Ernest’s comment: “No future.”

Yes, it was that tersely worded and when pushed, he merely repeated the statement.

It makes one wonder about the several dozen Skycatchers already received from the Chinese subcontractor and in the USA. Most of these new airplanes, reportedly in various states of completion, remain unsold; it is said some do not yet have an engine installed, for example.

Why the storied company would let these new aircraft languish seems hard to explain. For more than a year, the company has made almost no effort to market them. Maybe they only represent “spare parts?” I don’t know and Cessna is tight-lipped about them.

SkycatcherSo what does this mean for Light-Sport Aircraft?

Right or wrong, the market simply did not embrace Skycatcher. Even with the golden brand name of Cessna, this aircraft didn’t inspire the pilot community or very many flight schools.

The design was constrained in useful load — partly a decision to install the heavier Continental O-200 engine that Cessna mechanics know so well. Partly this was an effect of the steep price increase that Ernest implemented after replacing Jack Pelton as head of the company.

Regardless, from a onetime lofty 1,000 or so delivery positions sold, less than 300 were registered and about 200 are flying. Certainly, jets make lots more profit per unit, but nobody learns how to fly in a Citation.

The Wichita powerhouse appears willing to cede this market to others.

What does the rest of the LSA manufacturer base think of this? Mostly, nothing. I’ve asked several producers and nearly all see it as a non-event for their company. The bigger LSA players are doing fine, as are some with specialty aircraft that have a loyal following. They may be making fewer deliveries than when the economy was strong and the market brand new with pent-up demand. Yet when comparing similar $150,000 LSA, most fare better than Skycatcher and the market quickly came to realize this.

When Cessna first announced Skycatcher, many said this “validated” the LSA concept and it was widely viewed as a positive. While some LSA producers surely became nervous about competing again a multibillion-dollar enterprise like Cessna, in the end a quick and nimble company has advantages that a huge, sprawling enterprise lacks. The Bible story of David and Goliath springs to mind.

In the brave new world of ASTM industry consensus standards whereby manufacturers are able to rapidly change their airplanes to better suit the market, smaller and less regimented businesses can often respond better. Just ask Microsoft what they think of Google. Once the former corporation owned the world of PCs and Google didn’t even exist. In a dozen years Google passed the market capitalization of Microsoft. Back in 2001, no one would have believed that could happen.

For Cessna, Piper, and Cirrus — each of which briefly entered the LSA space — the LSA phenomenon may have proved too challenging and not financially worth the gamble. Certainly $75,000-$150,000 aircraft cannot throw off the profits of an $800,000 airplane or a $10 million business jet.

Brave New World

Into this melting pot we introduce the Part 23 rewrite project and the work of a new ASTM committee with the dull name “F44.” This group is working on industry consensus standards that should one day allow a Type Certified aircraft — something an LSA is not — to meet a more responsive set of rules than having to gain FAA approval the way it has always been done.

Will the legacy producers like Cessna follow this direction? Or, will the six LSA manufacturers who are planning four-seat designs come to dominate this entry end of aviation? Will Cessna continue its focus on jets, while Piper and Cirrus sell sophisticated aircraft like the Meridian and SR-22 Turbo? Does this mean the new upstarts will take over the lightest end of aircraft design and building? So many questions … we can only wait to see what tomorrow has in store. Cessna may not have all the right answers about the future.

Comments

  1. Scott Condon says:

    Mr. Rod Beck,
    Central Oregon Community College offers an aviation program in our community. Students get very excited and hooked on flying as a result of exposure to the program. This occurs even though most never even gave a moment’s thought to flying before showing up on the college campus. The trouble is that many students quit flying even after getting their license. The reason that ALL give is that flying is much too expensive. They want to fly! But they can’t because of cost. This is true even after they have been in the work force pursuing non aviation careers for 5, or more years. The problem sited by every young person that that I have spoken to is COST! Not a lack of interest, or passion. Not a lack of exposure to marketing, or a good salesman!

    • Scott,

      Throughout the time of history of aviation, people have worked to get their pilot license, fly a few times after the fact, and are never seen at the airport again. Money? Well, it is more a question of do they find the value for their money.

      Aviation has always been expensive…the solution? To find a USE for the airplane, then it is easier to justify the cost. Sure, I have known people who didn’t make a lot of money state that it is COST as the reason they quit flying, but show me when aviation has been cheap? Airplanes are rare and aviation has different specifications and requirements that will never bring the cost of flying down to costing less than alternative transportation needs.

      Flying isn’t a right, it is a privilege. Instead of dissecting the industry from its cost and it’s prohibitive condition, have these “kids” figure out how to earn the income so that they can afford their hobby. I think we need to identify who can afford this flying stuff, from the ones who would be better off buying a copy of Microsoft Flight Sim and try the virtual reality method!

    • Scott. I replied to your “cost” comment earlier, BUT I believe was deleted by the publisher for
      a “conflict of interest” and some bias reasons. So, I’ll simple say, I do not agree that COSTS is a factor!

  2. This was a pretty sporty plane with the Rotax. As soon as they installed the heavier engine it killed the sporty. And of course it started out at a competitive price and just kept going up. Say what you will but price and performance are what killed it.

  3. Dorchen Forman says:

    The Cessna 120/140s were nearly given LSA status, but after the comment period the FAA tacked on “unless previously certificated at a higher gross weight.” That killed all but one model of each of the wonderful vintage planes. They were selling at one-fifth the price of the new LSA. It was a way to let new manufacturers into the market and exclude affordable airplanes. Now you wonder why no one is learning to fly. The costs are prohibitive, the number of new rules are staggering and the airspace for small planes is shrinking.

    • Dorchen; respectfully, you just DON’T “get it” ; they’re NOT learning because they’re NOT interested – time you and others get off this “cost” non-cent$. Show me some un-bias market research statistics/studies by non-aviation researchers/economist that clearly shows COST is a WHY the general population isn’t buying “flying”! Would you buy a John Deere tractor for $5,000 that’s worth $50,000 if you didn’t have a NEED (or want) for it OTHER than to sell it for a “quick” profit $opportunity$ to a needy farmer?
      On the FAA given the “OK” for the 120/140 or even 150/152 “herd” – Cessna’ didn’t want to find themselves “competing” with 35-70 year old birds (theirs) with their new (disaster) Skycatcher – it’s called political “influence” – get my drift?

  4. Who are the six LSA manufacturers planning 4 seat aircraft?

  5. The Skycatcher empty weight is 830 lbs. Compare that to the Flight Design CT empty weight of 701 lbs. And the O-200 engine only weighs 38 pounds more than the Rotax. Add the fact that the Flight Design manages to be this much lighter AND has a cantilever wing (meaning a heavier spar), and it is clear that the Skycatcher is seriously overweight. In the LSA world where you are limited to a 1320 lb max weight, this is the kiss of death.

    • Phil, The 1,320 lb gross ISN’T the “kiss of death” – read my FIRST original comment on the solution to the payload (# 2) issue! Also TOTALLY agree on the Continetal VS the Rotax engine – another —-up by the near sighted brains at Cessna!

      • Rod, you misunderstood my comment. An overweight design (regardless of fuel capacity) is a kiss of death when the LSA rules limit you to only 1320 pounds. Especially when there are so many competing designs that are significantly lighter than the Skycatcher.

        • The Skycatcher was just Cessna’s Edsel. By the time Cessna got it to market, too many better options had already established in the market and the Skycatcher did nothing exceptionally well.

        • Phil; Lets see if I get this. Are you referring to the fact that many LSA’s are lighter (empty weight) than the Skycatcher and therefore allows for a greater useful load?
          My comment was based on the fact that ALL LSA’s are faced with the 1,320 lb max gross weight limitation and by limiting the fuel capacity to say 22-24 gal instead of the usual 34-36 gal, as standard in most, (unnecessary) this would in turn INCEASE the payload (in ANY LSA) which was a major complaint of many flight school operators. Of course, had Cessna gone with the Rotax engine, this would have improved the useful/payload as well.

          • Rod, yes I was referring to the fact that the Skycatcher is significantly heavier than its competition. In a category like LSA where you have a relatively low max allowable weight (1320 lbs), that is a real disadvantage in the marketplace. Even if Cessna had gone with the Rotax, it would only have saved a measly 38 pounds. The Skycatcher airframe itself is simply too heavy. As far as fuel capacity is concerned, you can always fill the tanks only partially if you need to carry more payload. Having larger tanks gives you more flexibility for situations where you are not carrying as much payload and you need longer range.

  6. Cessna may be making a mistake if they do intend to give up the “entry level” and more important the trainer airplane market. The way Apple turned itself around in part was by setting up an education program where they were basically giving schools apple computers. What did this do, for many it became to mean their first exposure to computers was an Apple. So when they were about to buy a computer they stuck with what they knew even though the price is at least 40% higher for the same speed as a PC. For many in the past the progression has been Learn in a Cessna 150 or 172 and then buy a 172/182 and maybe just maybe a larger Cessna, they will be giving this up eventually if they just ride the coat tail of their existing single engine airframes as the newer designs will be cheaper to maintain (an hopefully more fuel efficient).

    • Hi Joe;
      The “problem” isn’t with the play or the script – it’s the WRONG cast! Change the “actors” (pilots/flight instructors) to SALES/MANGEMENTT folks, and THAN allow the “co-stars”, the flight personal, do WHAT they do BEST – FLY/INSTRUCT!
      The “upsell” or brand loyalty progression as you mentioned; learn to fly, buy a plane, maintain it, etc, is quite common in the retail automotive world and HISTORICALLY Cessna’s 60/70′s gig – and certainly which COULD be applied to the GA “retail provider” today as well – but just isn’t!
      On Cessna’s lack of interest in LSA or the piston market; how many Skycatches or 172′s for that matter, do you think it would take to equal the net (ROI) profit on just ONE Citation series bird?

  7. Rod hit it right on the head, especially with point #3…this is why the LSA has not been developed. The LSA concept is a workable solution, and should be making many flight schools profitable. The excitement and enthusiasm for the product would be a sharp contrast to the sour attitude that most flight schools have of the LSA. If the flight school doesn’t get it, then the rest of the industry isn’t going to get it.

    Dan Johnson is essentially an idiot, and doesn’t understand the mechanism of business development. I have contacted Dan via e-mail to offer solutions, and the guy doesn’t have a clue as to what the LSA industry has for potential, and why it isn’t working. If you want to really develop this industry to its potential, you need to market the product for what value it brings to the table, because it is a solution to the pilot population increasing.

    I have worked on a consulting program that demonstrates the popularity of the Skycatcher compared to the rest of the training fleet…the acquisition price of the airplane WASN’T the problem! The marketing aspects, along with presentation and business approach to the selling of the LSA, is hindering the expansion of this segment.

  8. Kent Misegades says:

    It was clear, once Jack left Cessna, this plane was dead. Three things killed it. Old engine, instead of the lighter Rotax, Resulting in low useful load. Poor spin recovery, resulting in bad press. A spartan interior that looked crude compared to the competition from Europe. Judging from its growth compared to larger aircraft, LSA has been a great success. Manufacturers must deliver what customers are willing to pay, and not arbitrarily low-price some dream about. One hears also that there are serious flaws in the quality of these planes coming from Chinese factories. That is the reality of a free market, there are no guarantees of success, even when your name is Cessna.

    • Kent; Thanks for taking “price” out of the equation! Fact is, VALUE is what ISN’T being SOLD! But is your “typical” flight school owner/operator a QUALIFIED sales person? Knowing how to fly and having all the passion in the world doesn’t often translate into KNOWING how to make a convincing “sales” presentation and “close” the deal!
      And one more thing; the “concept” of the LSA was “WRIGHT” – just a poor product (Skycatcher) in the wrong hands’!

  9. LSA – how much time have you got?
    Ill try to “cut to the chase” and be brief!
    1. The GREATSEST potential market was never IDENTIFIED correctly from “day one” – tat is – the entry level, LSA or Private license candidate via marketing oriented flight schools/FBOs.
    2. That said, TWO major design flaws existed in nearly every LSA produced;
    A. Unnecessary fuel capacity – 34-36 gallons? NOTE: 22-24 gal would suffice for “training models” given Rotax (not Continetal powered Skycatcher) fuel burn of 4-5 gph
    B. Poor or low PAYLOAD as a result (under 365 lbs in most cases). PAYLOAD would increase to well over 425 lbs as a result.
    3. “Shot gun” or fragmented marketing and distribution by manufactures. Target market of flight schools and solid convincing sales presentations as to WHY (logic); less time to license, HALF the cost/investment of a Private, AND in a “modern” contemporary aircraft was sorely missed.
    Of course, some would argue the “limitations” of LSA; 2 place capacity, for example. that said, however, 80% of the NEED of most “weekend” pilots ” is met since very few REQUIRE the added benefits of a Private. If needed, however, a mere upgrade to the Private (if LSA equipped) can be accomplished in the same LSA one was trained in.

    BOTTOM LINE: In another fine GA related publication, mention was made of WHERE the breeding ground was for future pilots (aviation consumers ideally) and from a variety of demographic profiles. Until which time your flight school owner/operator clearly sees that THEIR very facility is PARAMOUNT to GA’s growth and the competency and professionalism of such, GA’s (primarily light aircraft segment) will certainly continue to be stymied.

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